A federal judge on Wednesday said a former University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate student's lawsuit alleging "deliberate indifference" by university officials responsible for handling Title IX complaints can move forward.
Chief U.S. District Court Judge John M. Gerrard ruled against several claims in the university's motion to dismiss in the case, which accuses UNL officials of failing to protect the student from being sexually harassed by a member of the faculty.
Wednesday's ruling also rejected UNL's motion to dismiss a claim that the student's constitutional right to due process had been violated, clearing a way for those matters to move forward in federal court.
According to the complaint, filed in February 2021, an international student who immigrated to the U.S. with her husband began to experience sexual harassment after enrolling in a Ph.D. program in UNL's Mechanical and Materials Engineering program in 2014.
The 26-year-old student reported a 60-year-old faculty member kissed her, tried to hug her, told her he loved her and sent unsolicited texts and emails of a sexual nature for more than a year and a half, the lawsuit states.
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After rebuffing the faculty member, the student said she faced retaliation, being demoted on an academic paper on which she was working, having her research position cut, and experiencing differential treatment from other faculty.
The student reported the harassment to UNL’s Office of Institutional Equity and Compliance in 2016 and provided dozens of emails and documents detailing the ongoing abuse, the lawsuit said, but she was ignored and made to “feel like she was the harasser rather than the victim.”
The student and her husband later left UNL, and she continued to face harassment from the unnamed faculty member, according to the lawsuit.
In the order, Gerrard said even though UNL investigators determined the faculty member had violated the university's sexual harassment policy, the student's claim demonstrated the response was "unreasonable given the severity of circumstances."
Gerrard pointed to an exchange between the student and Tami Strickman, then the Title IX coordinator, where Strickman offered to discuss a safety plan, but "allegedly took no action" on reports the faculty member was violating a no-contact order.
The student said in the lawsuit the faculty member continued to make multiple, unwanted advances toward her both on and off campus despite UNL instructing him not to do so.
Gerrard also rejected the university’s claim that Strickman was entitled to qualified immunity, which shields public officials from being held personally liable for constitutional violations.
Strickman, who left UNL in 2019 and is now the special adviser to the president and executive director of equity, civil rights and Title IX at the University of Michigan, was aware of the ongoing harassment, which Gerrard said was “factually, a garden-variety case of sexual harassment,” but acted with indifference to the woman’s report.
“It is clearly established that university students have a right not to be discriminated against or harassed on the basis of sex,” Gerrard wrote. “And it is also clearly established that 'supervisory school official with actual notice of ongoing sexual abuse against a student (is) required to take action to stop the abuse.'”
Elizabeth Abdnour, one of the two attorneys representing the student, said in a statement the decision was important because it recognized the limits of qualified immunity.
"Often, public school officials believe they are protected from legal liability when acting in their professional roles," Abdnour said. "As the court held, that immunity ends when a 'reasonable official would understand that what he is doing violates someone's constitutional rights."
Gerrard also sided with the woman’s claim that UNL violated her due process rights under the 14th Amendment by failing to follow policies requiring it to conduct an investigation, follow prescribed remedial measures, and notify her of her rights.
The court dismissed a claim that the student was retaliated against, however, noting she did not provide enough evidence to show Strickman's conduct was "intentionally retaliatory."
It also dismissed a claim that UNL's actions violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, finding there was no evidence suggesting the student was treated differently than her male counterparts.
Attorneys for the student as well as the university put forward differing opinions on what Wednesday's ruling signals for the future of the case.
The university said the ruling only determined if the student had provided enough information in the complaint to move forward -- not whether or not any of the allegations were true -- and pointed out several claims were dismissed.
"The University of Nebraska intends to vigorously defend the remaining claims in this case and looks forward to the opportunity to present its evidence to the court," the university said.
Karen Truszkowski, another attorney representing the student, said the decision recognized the strength of the student's claims against UNL.
"Her life was seriously disrupted by the faculty member that targeted her," Truszkowski said. "This decision moves her one step closer to piecing her life back together."
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